Founding an Impact Company in Denmark
Founder and Board Member of Donkey Republic
The world of venture capital and startups often gives the impression that the higher the funding round, the bigger the business. Still, the experience of founder Erdem Ovacik shows that solutions with impact and accessibility in mind can deliver results just as impressive. The well-seasoned entrepreneur has founded two different startups. The first, WeDecide, was a platform that helped organizations engage their crowd, mostly public organizations such as municipalities, political parties and not-for-profits. Erdem is also the cofounder of Donkey Republic, along with Alexander Fredriksen, Rune Kokholm and Jens Frandsen.
Donkey Republic, founded in 2014, quickly became a case study for micro-mobility. Today, the startup counts over twenty thousand bikes in more than seventy cities worldwide. The global bike-sharing platform was the first of its kind, allowing riders to use an app to unlock and rent bikes 24/7. The idea came from Erdem's Spanish flatmate in 2012: he had set up six city bikes with code locks for friends to borrow when they visited Copenhagen. The entrepreneur saw an apparent demand for a rental bike service that could cater to tourists as well as locals. He investigated how to integrate the idea into a digital solution, started gathering his team, and created the digital platform for the bike-rental company now known as Donkey Republic.
Along with the cofounders, the first fleet had one hundred bikes. By the end of 2015, it had grown to five hundred. The success, Erdem believes, comes from a deep understanding of Donkey Republic's users and what they need. For example, the startup offers a variety of rental options and memberships that allow users to easily keep their bikes for longer if they choose to, a handy option for frequent travelers or digital nomads. Another example is Donkey focusing on operations with virtual stations, a key feature that helps keep bikes organized while parked, and one cities appreciate. It took the company many years to earn the trust of cities, as their bike-sharing solution partners. "Today, we see ourselves as cities’ partners in delivering bike sharing as public transport. This vision took a long journey to realise, and now we are in more than seventy cities with more than thirty thousand trips every day." he says. "Thanks to our strategy focused on rider needs on one hand and cities on the other, we compete very well with unicorn-like competitors such as Lime and Bolt. We're clearly the dominant service in Copenhagen."
Remember that your needs change over time, so you must evaluate and adjust your needs and goals every so often.
Erdem, who comes from a background in management consulting and has a degree in public policy from Berkeley University in the US, has worked in several prestigious companies, including the global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company. “At McKinsey, it was ‘big money talks,” he says. “Most of my colleagues were twenty years my senior, but I wasn't inspired at all. Most of the time, I felt like I was debating with partners over dinner. What we were doing was not improving society, and I felt a strong need to do something positive." Without finding professional fulfillment in large corporations, Erdem's need for a stronger sense of purpose and agility brought him closer to entrepreneurship.
Erdem is originally from Turkey, but the Nordics first caught his attention when he was studying in the US. While looking at case studies of Scandinavian welfare models, he longed to challenge, disrupt and solve governance problems, from decision-making to delivery and democracy. Motivated by impact solutions, he graduated from Berkeley University and made Copenhagen his new home. He has now been based there for over fifteen years. He recalls that upon arrival to the Danish capital, he was keen to work in public policy and often made it to the final rounds of interviews, but the language barrier was a significant obstacle despite his many qualifications and he was unable to land any jobs. He also found that, while most politicians claimed they wanted civilian input, they weren’t actually listening to their citizens.
The solution to making the impact he wished for was to start his own company.
The legal parts of starting a business in Denmark were easy. The challenge came while navigating the Copenhagen entrepreneurship scene. “Meeting locals and making friends was hard,” he says. “Danish isn’t an easy language to learn, and initially, everyone would switch to English when I tried speaking Danish. Most of my friends ended up being expats, and they were coming and going, so it was difficult to get into Danish society." ”It took Erdem almost ten years to get comfortable with Danish and a few partners he has had that got him into contact with the workings of the Danish society. "I enjoy doing acro yoga and dancing lindy hop. Social activities, more than work, are great for making new friends here and they open seemingly closed circles of Danes.”
I once stopped next to solutions further. It simply starts with a bike. The mayor of Copenhagen, also on his bike. The city has a flat hierarchy, and knowing people are not hiding or pretending gives me peace of mind.
Erdem also recommends that foreigners in Copenhagen foster friendships based on passions and hobbies instead of looking for workplace connections. "Many expats try to meet people at work, but mingling with colleagues is often not the Danish way to make friends," he says. Instead of hanging out with other expats that you work with, aim to learn Danish and fully integrate by taking risks and chasing activities you love with other enthusiasts.
Regarding professional relationships and personal development, on the other hand, Erdem highlights how coaching and mentoring have helped him improve his leadership and communication skills, not to mention helping him get better with boundaries and creating a sustainable and inclusive company culture. “I can recommend startups to focus rather early finding the right mix of independent advisors and board members, especially the chairperson, to guide you on how you want to set the culture and grow the company. They shouldn’t just be your investors but also independent advisors that understand your industry and dare to challenge you. Also, remember that your needs change over time, so you must evaluate and adjust your needs and goals every so often.”
He left the CEO position at Donkey Republic in September 2022, staying in the company as a board member. Looking back at nearly ten years of the startup, he wishes he had known how to keep his vision grounded and not get too far ahead of himself on the journey. “I often get super excited about my ideas, how the world could be,” he says. “I can be a bit too excited about how the world can be in the future… when the world is not demanding that future yet. There's a difference between people having a problem you think you can solve versus people having a problem and them being aware of it, which turns it into a demand that you can solve. If you offer a solution to a problem that people don't recognize they have, then you have to do a lot of legwork and convincing.”
This lesson was learned as Erdem tried to get local Copenhagen riders to use Donkey Republic's services. An app and an application for a monthly subscription seemed too much of a mindset change to access the bikes. Instead, the startup built its business model around tourist revenue, where there was a clear need and demand from its audience. Once the traction was there, Donkey Republic adapted its services to local riders, and the numbers mentioned above speak for themselves.
In the end, Donkey Republic and Copenhagen were the perfect match. A lot has changed in the city since Erdem first arrived back in 2007. "It's great to live in a well-functioning city with all the basics you need, like excellent mobility infrastructure, housing, health care and the other things you don't need to worry about. Culture and nature are easily accessible too. It's become a lot more international. I've seen that evolve from 2007 onwards; the culture is a lot more diverse and colorful." The evolution of the ecosystem has impressed the entrepreneur too. "I have only started businesses in Copenhagen, but I worked in London in the UK, and in New York and Washington in the US, and of course, Istanbul in Turkey. I frequently visited Paris and Barcelona for work. In Copenhagen, what I see is great talent attraction, especially from the European Union and Latin America. You get people with amazing skills, motivated to do their best work."
That international spark is what Erdem sees as the highlight of the ecosystem. "If you have a business that doesn't require strong Danish skills, you can attract incredible international talent," he says, noting that the impressive work-life balance also supports the ecosystem's talent attraction. There is also the increasingly reduced bureaucracy in terms of business opening and administrative tasks. "I can also confirm that, in terms of investments, the network is getting stronger and stronger."
From creating one of the first mobility-focused solutions in the sharing economy, Erdem has constantly focused on impact solutions, including with his work as a board member within Cycling Industries Europe, facilitating and aligning priorities for the bike-sharing industry in Europe, and creating a strong voice towards government and other key stakeholders such as Google Maps. His successful work with Donkey Republic shows that startups and ecosystems can be profitable, yes, but they can also improve our cities' governance problems, using data and markets as underutilized tools to develop democratic urban solutions further. It simply starts with a bike.
[Flash Q & A]
What’s your favorite book?
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig.
A favorite podcast?
Making Sense by Sam Harris.
What’s your most used app?
Favorite place for deep thinking or reflecting:
I love the panoramic viewpoint when crossing the bike bridge in Amager, behind the Aller Media building.
Go-to spot for eating out:
Ramen To Biiru is my go-to for a spicy dinner. Sidecar for a weekend brunch.
Favorite place for relaxing after work:
The Christiania sauna, followed by dinner at Morgenstedet next door.
Favorite neighborhood to explore:
Nordvest. It has exciting streets like Rentemestervej, and it’s also home to the Flere Fugle bakery.
Favorite place to go dancing:
Autopoul. A hip bar to visit in the summertime, with a lovely wine garden and vibrant dancefloor.